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Lite Reading : So Many Cookbooks, So Little Fat

July 21, 1994|KAREN STABINER | Stabiner is writing a book about Dr. Susan Love and the UCLA Breast Center. and

Advocates of low-fat diets can sound impossibly smug, so at the outset I want to go on record as an all-American fat lover. In the 1960s, my favorite folks-are-going-out convenience meal was a rib-eye steak, tater tots and a salad smothered in bottled Thousand Island. Maybe a cupcake for dessert. With a nice frosty glass of cold--whole--milk.

Certain of my friends consider me a pious healthie because I have an honest affection for most vegetables, but really: I've never met a gelato I didn't like. My husband and 5-year-old daughter occasionally make irresistible scrambled eggs smothered in butter. And I love the tell-tale silkiness of traditional pesto, the kind that clings to each piece of fettuccine like a slinky dress on an oh-so-thin socialite.

But these are the lean '90s. If the '80s were the decade of excess, of towering pastries and junk bonds, then this is the era of nonfat Parmesan cheese and a sensible mutual fund. Fat is politically incorrect. Feeding fat to your family is a social felony. The only problem is, nobody knows how to cook without it.

The publishing industry, quick to sense an audience in need of guidance, has clogged the arteries of the marketplace with a flood of cookbooks aimed at the re-education of the American public. We've got nonfat recipes, low-fat recipes, "light" recipes (usually a euphemism for not quite so low-fat), celebrity cookbooks and gimmicks. "In the Kitchen With Rosie," an appropriately slim volume from Oprah Winfrey's in-house chef, Rosie Daley, has sold more copies than any cookbook in the history of record-keeping, with a reported 4.2 million copies in print. It's almost impossible to avoid: even if you never set foot in bookstores, you'll find it at the checkout counter of your local upscale market right next to the National Enquirer.

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Like CD-ROM, low-fat cooking is in its gold-rush phase. Eventually it will shake out--but for now there's too much opportunistic product to make much sense. How can you grasp, or trust, a category that includes everything from the American Heart Assn.'s cookbook to Richard Simmons' "Dial-A-Meal"?

The answer is, with great trepidation. I've examined almost two dozen books and can report that they fall into three fairly distinct categories. First, there are the books that want to help you change the way you eat, written by visionaries who can imagine a brave new world where not every green bean is swathed in butter, not every strawberry cloaked in cream. Next, a step down the morality ladder, are the books that want to help you eat all the bad stuff you've always eaten, but in a low-fat kind of way. Last, there are the gimmick books, usually tied into a product or a marketing concept, like Simmons' flash cards, video and guide to junk food, or the "Butter Busters" cookbook, which relies on products such as Butter Buds, Egg Beaters and both original and brown Sweet 'N' Low.

All the cookbooks offer revised versions of your favorite forbidden treats--wisely, since even the most motivated among us are hardly going to switch cold turkey (so to speak) from Western foods to a rural Chinese peasant diet. What makes the difference, as with any kind of writing, is imagination. The best cookbook writers rethink food and teach us tricks we can use in our own repertoire of dishes. The worst writers plug in low-fat substitutes for fatty ingredients and expect us to like a literal imitation that only succeeds in reminding us of just what we're missing.

Your taste buds are not stupid. They know that chocolate tofu cheesecake, or pasta stuffed with three nonfat cheeses, is not the real thing.

What's a responsible eater to do? Change your flavor and texture expectations. Having tried three pestos and their Provencal cousin, pistou , I can attest that low-fat pesto does not taste or feel like the real thing. It's chunkier, harsher, brighter; it's a pushy dish. But if you unhinge your memory--to borrow from Southern California therapy-speak, if you can live in the moment--you may find that some of this neo-pesto is, in fact, quite good. The trick about low-fat food is not to compare it to what you're used to, but to take it on its own terms.

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That's probably why the vegetable dishes and entrees are the best thing about "In the Kitchen With Rosie," the leader of the low-fat pack. Rosie Daley reinvents dishes. She retools a few bad foods, in deference to her boss's love of anything fried, but for the most part these are clean new ideas. Fair warning: Many of them are labor-intensive, and some call for costly ingredients. There are only 50 recipes in the book, so it hardly qualifies as a comprehensive instruction manual for a new life. But it's a great start.

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